New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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Saluting Lavishly Orchestral European Metal Cult Favorites Royal Hunt

Not to flog a dead horse, but more bands should make live albums. Swedish band Royal Hunt made a massive double live one, sarcastically titled Wasted Time, for their 25th anniversary back in 2016 and validated their reputation as road warriors. If epic drama, gothic imagery, and melodic metal with classical flourishes are your thing, crank this beast. It’s one long album – every song seems to be about eight minutes – and it’s streaming at Spotify.

What’s most impressive is how ornate and orchestral this music is: they don’t really strip much of anything down from their lavish studio productions. A rattle from Andreas Passmark’s bass, a few bursts from Andre Andersen’s string synth, a couple of Jonas Larsen minor-key guitar chords, a few baroque spirals…and the band launch into their classical-metal instrumental Martial Arts. Before you know it, they segue into the galloping River of Pain with its flangey twin guitars, surreallistically icy keyboard flourishes and tantalizingly sunbaked blues.

This take of One Minute Left to Live is part grand guignol Mozart, a little Viking chant and a lot of Iron Maiden. Take the distortion off the guitar but leave the wah-wah, get Habo Johansson’s drums to chill and suddenly Army of Slaves becomes a Donna Summer disco-pop hit with a dude (that’s DC Cooper) on the mic.

So far the band haven’t taken a break as they segue into Lies, a surreal mashup of AC/DC, speedmetal and the baroque. They finally do before the album’s title track, a new wave pop song on steroids.

Likewise, there’s an oldschool soul ballad bleeding through the crunch and roar of Heart on a Platter.

The doublebass drum really gets a workout in Flight; but first they kick this Trans-Siberian Orchestra-ish sprint off with a rockabilly shuffle. And just when May You Never Walk Alone seems like it’s going to be a power ballad, the guitars and string synth kick in and take it doublespeed.

The album’s best song, Until the Day, appears toward the end of the show: with its funereal piano, it’s the closest thing to Pink Floyd here. By now, the concert has hit a peak and the band keep it going with the phantasmagorical Half Past Loneliness. The accusatory anthem Message to God makes a good segue from there.

They encore with a comfortable take of the catchy early 80s-style Stranded and close the show in a similar vein with A Life to Die For. Some people will hear this and roll their eyes at this relic from the days when there were big record labels who spared no detail in recording stuff like this…but that’s their loss.

Muhal Richard Abrams Leaves Us With a Knowing Wink

Muhal Richard Abrams knew as much about writing for large improvising ensembles as anyone who ever lived. So it’s no surprise that one of his late largescale works, Soundpath, would be as erudite as it is playful and fun. The seventeen-piece Warriors of the Wonderful Sound’s new recording – streaming at Bandcamp – is creative jazz as entertainment, a lively, dynamic uninterrupted, roughly forty-minute suite.

The group are a mix of big names, up-and-coming players and familiar faces from the free jazz demimonde. They unfold this brighty, brassy theme and variations symphonically, with plenty accommodation for individual contributions. Abrams uses every trick in the book to his advantage: false endings, suspenseful foreshadowing with varying numbers of voices, and conversations everywhere. The full ensemble is only engaged all at once in maybe twenty percent of the piece, if that. Otherwise, it’s remarkably spacious, with lots of pairings and moments where the whole orchestra emphatically punches in and out.

The genial, brassy floating swing behind the opening theme recurs throughout the performance, but there are plenty of airy interludes where the rhythm drops out. Pianist Tom Lawton excels in the bad-cop role: he’s the only one who gets anything in the way of disquieting modes. Bassist Michael Formanek is as much rhythmic center, maybe more than drummer Chad Taylor, the latter of whom gets to lead the shenanigans as the coda, with its innumerable moments of amusement, gathers steam.

While there are interludes where this could be any reasonably inspired chordless trio kicking into an energetic solo from the horn player, this is more about interplay, whether via jousting, or the whole ensemble in contrast to a soloist. Bass trombonist Jose Davila’s wryly gruff solo gets a very subtle but no less amusing reality check from Taylor, on his rims. After walking the changes for much of the time, Formanek finally gets to carry a thematic variation by himself amid the orchestra’s densely hovering atmosphere.

There’s a vastly dynamic, duotone-spiced tenor solo – sounds like that’s Hafez Modirzadeh – which cues Taylor that it’s time to introduce a steady clave; the way the polyrhythms shift from there is artful to the extreme. The ending is pure Beethoven: try listening all the way through without smiling. Impossible. At a time when in most parts of the world, music like this is not only illegal to invite an audience to, but also illegal to play, we need recordings like this more than ever to remind us how desperately we need to return to normal. A triumph from a cast that also includes ringleader and alto saxophonists Bobby Zankel, Marty Ehrlich and Julian Pressley; Mark Allen on baritone sax; Robert Debellis on tenor sax;, Steve Swell, Michael Dessen and Al Patterson on trombones; Duane Eubanks, Josh Evans and Dave Ballou on trumpets; and Graham Haynes on cornet.

Haunting, Epic Grandeur From the Grimly Mighty Katla

The cover image of Icelandic art-rock band Katla’s new album Allt þetta helvítis myrkur (All This Hellacious Darkness), streaming at Bandcamp, shows a hooded man standing between a huge snowdrift and what could either be a snowed-in bridge, or the skeleton frame of some kind of industrial building. Either way, this haunting song cycle is one of the most darkly gorgeous releases of the year.

To the less familiar, Icelandic folk music has an especially enigmatic, otherworldly quality since some of it veers in and out of traditional western scales. Einar Thorberg Gu∂mundsson’s ominously drifting synthesized orchestration and layers of burning guitars rise and fall over drummer Gu∂mundur Óli Pálmason’s slow, funereal sway. The music here typically follows an arc that has more to do with classical music than any kind of traditional pop verse/chorus pattern. Most of the songs segue into each other. The lyrics are in Icelandic: smartly, the record comes with a lyric sheet.

Gu∂mundsson eventually enters with an angst-fueled intensity over gritty guitar distortion in the opening track, Ást orðum ofar (seemingly a love song), eventually segueing into the slow, enveloping, grim Villuljós (Error Light), a gracefully elegaic, fingerpicked folk riff looping in the distance. The sway grows toward a conflagration as Gu∂mundsson’s guitars pick up and spiral around. There’s a lull for a ticking loop and brooding orchestration, then the music slowly makes its way toward sheer horror in theinstrumental Likfundur a Solheimasandi, a simple funereal drumbeat adrift in the vastness.

Sálarsvefn (Sleep of the Soul) is also a dirge, forlorn belltone guitar over smoldering, anthemic minor-key changes; finally, it hits a gusty peak with the doublebass drum going full tilt in the background. 

A creepy music box-like synth riff kicks off Vergangur, a glacial, disquieting blend of ancient-sounding Icelandic folk themes, peak-era early 80s Iron Maiden, noisy Finnish punk in a Sielun Veljet vein and macabre, droning psychedelia.

Hvítamyrkur (Dark Light) has a somber cello solo amidst desolation, a searingly marching drive and a gorgeous, woundedly ornate guitar solo. The duo finally pick up the pace with an elegant gallop in Húsavíkur-Jón, gathering force from a serpentine drive toward crushing majesty.

The album’s ttle track is an art-rock masterpiece, a twelve-minute snowstorm epic that rises from a surprisingly delicate, Chopinesque intro through dissociative nubulosity and grimly triumphant turbulence. This trek through the wasteland doesn’t seem to end well.

The moment when the nocturnal pastorale that introduces the fifteen-minute Svartnætti (Dead of Night) comes as a shock. From there they sway through a smoldering pagan folk anthem and variations. Ironically, even with the symphonic coda, it’s the simplest and most straightforward song here. A lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

A Smart, Darkly Lyrical, Catchy New Album From Kristy Hinds

Kristy Hinds is not a pretender. She is the real deal. The New Mexico chanteuse has a voice that can be sassy one moment, pillowy the next, with a sophisticated command of jazz phrasing and an irrepressible sense of humor. Which you pretty much need to have, if your axe is the ukulele. But as a songwriter, Hinds’ mini-movies are more serious and substantial, and tinged with noir menace, than you usually hear plinked out on that little instrument. Alongside other members of the uke demimonde, Bliss Blood is the obvious comparison. Hinds has a new short album, Strange Religion streaming at Soundcloud.

The opening track, Miss Morocco is a catchy, slinky cha-cha with the kind of double entendres that Hinds has a knack for, i.e. this femme fatale and would-be starlet “killed him with a head shot.” Track two, She Told Someone, has a funky Rhodes piano bounce behind Hinds’ vengeful narrative about speaking truth to power after a grim Metoo moment: that’s Robert Muller at the keys, with Claudio Tolousse on guitar and Arnaldo Acosta on drums. Samantha Harris and Colin Deuble share bass duties on the record.

The closing diptych, Burn or Drown and Drive begins as a reggae tune: “A daily sacrifice is needed to keep the mice in bullets – my car outside is loaded,” Hinds relates.

While you’re at Hinds’ Soundcloud page, check out the live tracks: flying without a net, she’s arguably even more dynamic onstage than she is in the studio. Hinds’ next gig will be a weekly 9 PM Friday night residency at Old Town Farm Bike-in Coffee, 949 Montoya St NW in Albuquerque as soon as they reopen next month.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 orchestral record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

Revisiting Kimberly Hawkey’s Swing Jazz Reinventions

Kimberly Hawkey is best known as the irrepressible, erudite frontwoman of the deviously entertaining Swingaroos, who reinvent old jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s. But back in 2016, she made an equally irreverent and captivating album of her own with a considerably larger cast including a string quartet. That record, Elvanelle & the Escape Act, is still streaming at Bandcamp, and it has an interesting backstory.

Hawkey crowdsourced the record, and one of the perks she was giving out to supporters was a collection of old sheet music she’d picked up on Ebay. Going through the scores, she noticed that she’d just acquired the personal archive of a woman named Elvanell Ellison, who was born in New Mexico in 1917. Not much is known about her other than her passion for jazz. She married a guy named John Horton, moved to California and eventually died there in the 1990s. Clearly, she and Hawkey are kindred spirits.

Hawkey opens the record with the lush, playfuly orchestrated, Gershwinesque Music That Makes the Wind Blow, the first of a couple of co-writes with Swingaroos pianist Assaf Gleizner. She and the band give a cosmopolitan 30s feel to the first of the standards, It’s You or No One, with a triumphant trumpet solo from Björn Ingelstam.

Hawkey recasts Johnny Mercer’s Dream as latin noir, driven by the snaky rhythm of bassist Ray Cetta and drummer Mark McLean, saxophonist Morgan Price’s smoky spirals completing the picture. She gets brassy in an unexpectedly carnivalesque take of Crazy Rhythm and then makes an elegantly artsy piano ballad out of the first of a couple of old folk tunes, Shall We Gather at the River. Gleizner channels McCoy Tyner at his tersest and darkest in a Coltrane-esque remake of the other, Shady Grove. 

Hawkey and the band make a diptych out of How Little We Know and I’ll See You Again, shifting from a strikingly poignant waltz to a crooner cameo by Ingelstam and then a little duet. Hawkey’s lyrics to the album’s second original, I Love a Ballad are hilarious, matched by the music: without giving away too much, tempos are part of the joke.

She veers even closer to Spike Jones territory, picking up her tenor banjo as Ingelstam switches to trombone for a goofy version of I’m in the Mood for Love. Then she gets sly and lowdown in a New Orleans-flavored reinvention of Ev’rything I’ve Got. Hawkey closes the album with a wistful, fond version of I’ll Be Seeing You. A triumph of outside-the-box ideas from a cast that also includes violinists Brendan Speltz and Lavinia Pavlish, violist Milena Pajaro van der Stadt, cellist Andrew Janss and trombonist Christopher Bill.

Dynamic Big Band Music For Transcending Troubled Times

Big band composer Daniel Hersog took the title for his album Night Devoid of Stars – streaming at Bandcamp – from a Martin Luther King quote about how love is the only power strong enough to defeat evil: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Hersog wrote most of the record in the wee hours with tv news on in the background. This was before the lockdown, and there doesn’t seem to be any specific political commentary here, but the backdrop is ugly. Clearly, music kept this guy sane – and will continue to do the same for you.

Hersog conducts a sixteen-piece orchestra throughout a dynamic, smartly spacious mix of material that only reaches gale force once in awhile. They open with Cloud Break, a cheerily marching feature for lead trumpeter Brad Turner’s judicious, occasionally feral lines, especially when the group pick it up with a racewalking swing. Tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger artfully echoes a similar intensity as pianist Frank Carlberg glimmers uneasily before the band swing it again: it ain’t got a thing, etc.

Carlberg gets to take a rare detour into spare gospel in the second number, Motion: big band compositions seldom get as quiet as this one does. Preminger’s meticulously voiced solo as the rhythm section takes it into funkier territory is one of the album’s high points. The orchestra finallly return in waves at the end.

Carlberg’s paraphrase of My Favorite Things to introduce Makeshift Memorial leaves the question unanswered: a solemn exchange between Preminger and the brass develops, moments of stark lustre contrasting with a tentative ebullience. Candles left for a gangster only last so long.

Hersog reaches for early 70s Morricone-esque cinematics as the album’s title track gets underway, rising quickly to a punchy, grim urban funk tableau that the band decide to take swinging all of a sudden, Preminger in the catbird seat with a slit-eyed grin, Turner choosing his spots as the dancing pulse reaches toward redline.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is a great song just about all the time no matter who plays it, and Hersog makes a lustously horizontal epic out of it, from Carlberg’s casually cruel, Ran Blake-inflected lines, to hypnotically swirling orchestration and a swaying piano interlude that stops thisshort of jaunty. It’s a song about being haunted, and this is.

Indelible begins as a warmly swaying nocturne, and rises to a gritty peak on the wings of Michael Braverman’s soprano sax, Preminger offering calm over the increasingly acidic, spiky, funky pulse behind him. The ensemble close with Song for Henrique, Carlberg shifting with jaunty latinisms and a more unsettled Middle Eastern chormaticism as the bass and drums pulse tightly behind him. A vividly eclectic performance from an ensemble that also includes Chris Startup on alto sax; Tom Keenlyside on tenor; Ben Henriques on baritone; Michael Kim, Derry Byrne and Jocelyn Waugh on trumpets; Rod Murray, Jim Hopson and Brian Harding on trombones; Sherman King on bass trombone; James Meger on bass and Michael Sarin on drums.

Dark, Pensive Two-Bass Soundscapes From Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci

Bassists Daniel Barbiero and Cristiano Bocci have just released their starkly evocative, immersive new duo album Now/Here on the reliably adventurous Acustronica label, where it’s streaming. The former also plays the Korean geomumgo bass lute on the album’s second track; the latter plays six-string electric bass and handles the electronic component. Like the best ambient music, it’s best appreciated as a cohesive whole, although the playing is more animated and considerably less reliant on drones than usual in this genre.

The first track is Nowhere, Barbiero beginning it by bowing a somber, Pink Floyd-like riff over the icy swirl behind him. Bocci eventually echoes him over down-the-drainpipe sonics. The second track, Paths (A Winter Day in a Seaside Town) features Barbiero bowing starkly, adding wispy high harmonics, Asian pentatonics and squirrelly accents over samples of waves and shorebirds.

Ten Lines for Nowhere is much the same but focused in the low registers with a more hypnotic, loopy backdrop. The two bassists switch roles for the first part of the diptych Elegy For Time and Space, Bocci’s spare plucks over dark, overtone-rich washes from Barbiero, then the textures grow denser and a simple, anthemic theme sneaks into the picture. Similarly, Bocci rumbles and adds bell-like accents as Barbiero supplies atmosphere as the second half begins; then there’s another role reversal. It’s both the catchiest and most hypnotic interlude on the album.

Green Over Grey is the most subtly shifting, drone-oriented and most haunting piece here. The two wind up the album with the title cut, which follows the same pattern, but more minimalistically.

Jordi Savall Unearths a Vault of Secret Beethoven

As both a musician and conductor, Jordi Savall has made a career of rediscovering lost treasures from the Americas to the Middle East. When he finally turned his attention to recording works by the best-known composer in the history of the western world, the treasures he found were hidden in plain sight. If you think you know Beethoven, the level of detail in Savall’s latest recording with the orchestra Le Concert Des Nations will take your breath away. It’ll make you laugh, and give you chills.

Savall’s modus operandi for the massive six-disc set Beethoven Revolution: Symphonies 1 a 5 – streaming at Spotify – was to play the composer’s first five symphonies as they would have been performed contemporaneously, with period instruments and a considerably smaller ensemble compared to today’s orchestras, just sixty players. Yet the music is no less vigorous, and there are elements that will jump out at you for the first time because unless you’ve played this music with a chamber orchestra this closely attuned to the score, you simply haven’t heard them before. Even in concert, more often than not they get subsumed in the bluster. This is not Beethoven as relaxing wine-hour music, or innocuous background for multitasking. This is headphone music.

A lot of the hidden details that Savall brings to the foreground are jokes. Other than the violinists who play it, who noticed how frequently Beethoven uses glissandos as a punchline, especially in Symphonies 4 and 5? Or, for that matter, in Symphony No. 1? All that leaps out, not to mention the jagged flurries in the fourth movement of No. 1 – or, for that matter, how that movement foreshadows the introduction to No. 2? We now know that Beethoven wrote No. 2 before he wrote No. 1 – and obviously liked that gusty riffage to the point where he thought it was worth recycling. After all, only those who’d seen the scores at the time, or played them, could have picked up on that.

Call-and-response is another device that Beethoven loved to have fun with, and nobody has fun with it like this crew. The fugal moments between strings and winds, or strings and brass, are in particularly high definition throughout the entire set of symphonies, notably in the opening movement of No. 2 and the third movement of No. 4. And when’s the last time you heard an orchestra working contrasting loud/soft conversational dynamics in No. 4? Beethoven was writing  the so-called Razumovsky string quartets around the same time and was obviously having a jolly good time with that trope.

In lieu of timpani, there’s a single bass drum played with sticks rather than mallets. Who knew how prominent, or how deviously funny, the percussion in No. 5 actually is? This crew does.

And the details bristle as much as they tickle. Fleeting words of warning that go rubato and then hint at a complete stop in the first movement of No. 3; the starkness of the cellos introducing that iconic descending progression in the second movement of No. 4; and the sheer beefiness of the second movement of No. 5, which most orchestras play as a straightforwardly courtly dance. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to all of this in a single setting is overwhelming: stream these one a night for a week and your perspective on other recordings will be changed for life.

Celebrate the End of an Ugly World with Brent Amaker and the Rodeo’s Protest Songs

Everybody’s favorite tongue-in-cheek baritone C&W crooner, Brent Amaker, has a new ep Ugly World, with his band the Rodeo streaming at Spotify. His protest songs speak for billions of people around the globe. How do you write a hit song? Make it a broadside about everybody’s least favorite bully.

You probably know the big hit, Dump Trump:

He has his head up his own butt…
Dude loves himself so much he’ll take us down for a buck
This tv star is a hack
I want my country back

It’s a solid piece of retro tunesmithing, too – that machete-chord guitar outro is spot-on.

The rest of the record is just as relevant. The title track is a spaghetti western tune with a bunch of amusing musical quotes and a long, incendiary guitar solo. Amaker would love a beer, but the bars are closed: things just get uglier and uglier in this lockdown hell!

He sticks with a loping southwestern gothic groove for Soldier, an unexpectedly subtle number that manages to be sympathetic to the battlescarred dude while not missing the implications of what people this damaged do if they’re running the show. Amaker closes with  New Rodeo Anthem. a stadium-friendly (or corral-friendly) singalong. You know that when the lockdown is over and Amaker is back on the road, he and the band are going to break this one out for the encores.

Now, some of you regular readers might be wondering why, after salivating over the prospect of a Trump impeachment week after week a year ago, this blog went totally silent on the Presidential election. Did New York Music Daily secretly go over to the dark side and endorse Trump?

No. But if anybody thinks Biden is an improvement, they’re living in a dream world. In many respects Biden is Trump with a smiley face – or wearing a muzzle with a smiley face on it. Trump was surrounded by a bunch of cheap snatch-and-grab thugs, but Biden’s people are far more sinister. The Trump crowd simply wanted to loot the treasury and make a quick getaway. Biden’s people have an agenda: permanent lockdown. The New Abnormal. We are going to have to be twice as dedicated to noncompliance as we’ve been the past year in order to get rid of it. And this blog believes we can. Stay strong because the next four years are going to be hell. But we’re going to win this thing.